How To Be A Dungeon Master: The Basic Steps

How To Be A Dungeon Master: The Basic Steps

Sep 28 , 2021

Mark Coffey

The Dungeon Master (also known as the DM) arguably plays the most important role ina game of Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D, or…*cringe*...DnD). The DM is responsible for creating or curating the story through which the players guide their characters. The DM also takes on the role of important characters in the story called “non player characters (or NPCs),These are all very important roles to make sure the game doesn’t go off the rails.

So, here is a basic guide on how to be a Dungeon Master.

The Responsibilities of a Dungeon Master

As the DM, you are responsible for almost all of the prep work associated with a game or campaign. If you are brand new, this might seem a bit overwhelming, but take heart. There are a ton of resources available to you, including online communities, and even courses that can help you learn and grow as a DM. All that aside, being the DM, while important, is an extremely fun and rewarding aspect of the game. You are the master storyteller, the tale weaver. You set the stage for your players and you guide the story. Whether you use an official D&D campaign or module (like The Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is a great starting campaign), or if you jump in head first and design your own custom homebrewed campaign, all you need to do is look around to find resources to help you!

You are incontrol of the world, the environment, the animals and the weather, the shopkeepers and farmers the players might meet, and the monsters and antagonists they may need to defeat. You are not “against” the players, you are simply controlling the story and the environment they are interacting with, reacting to their decisions.

The Rules of the Game

The Dungeon Master needs to know the rules of the game. At a minimum, you need to be familiar with the Basic Rules. This is tricky, because if you are brand new, there is a lot to learn and know! If you have never played D&D before and you are taking up the DM’s mantle, we highly suggest that you watch a few game sessions from RealmSmith or Critical Role. Both have excellent YouTube channels and communities surrounding their games. Be sure to start watching from the beginning of the campaign so you can get a feel for how to actually start. You won’t be able to learn all of the rules this way, but you will get a sense of what is important and start to prioritize. Both of these Dungeon Masters, Jason Azevedo and Matt Mercer, are excellent and you can learn from each of their styles.

Once you have chosen a campaign, read through it once. Taking notes as you go on how the players are meant to interact with the story and what game rules do or might apply to those interactions. Most campaigns are designed in chapters. A large campaign might be 20 chapters long, but each chapter might take 2-4 hours to play. So, you really only need to know what’s relevant for 1 or 2 chapters at a time. This greatly reduces prep time and makes planning much more manageable.

Just remember, players will not always do what you want them to do so you will need to be ready to think on your feet!

Preparing the Game

You can either go with a pre-prepared campaign, or design your own. The former is a good option for beginner Dungeon Masters. It’s always a good idea to choose a campaign setting that interests you. Maybe you are interested in weaving a tale through the harsh frozen expanses of Icewind Dale or, perhaps you find  the dark gothic themes of Ravenloft more appealing. Whatever the case, by choosing a setting that interests you, you will be more enthusiastic about the story and that enthusiasm will be mirrored by your players.

You will find a nearly endless trove of amazing fan-generated content available online for nearly every official campaign. From recorded live-play sessions to maps, NPCs, magical items, side-quests, and additional story-lines. And, the best part is most of this additional material is free.

Tools of the Trade

You will need a few things to be successful. Here are a few basic things to get you started.

  • Dice: You will need physical dice sets or access to a virtual set. If you opt for physical dice (because, they’re awesome and who doesn’t like dice!?), we recommend at least 2 complete sets. They don’t need to be anything fancy or expensive, but having multiple sets will make your life a little easier.
  • Notebook & Pencils: You need to keep track of the progress of your game somewhere. These primitive items will help you do it.
  • DM Screen + Map: The DM screen is extremely functional. It allows you to have critical game information (like rules) immediately in front of you when you need it and provides you a small bit of privacy so you can prepare encounters without giving details away to the players. Having a pre-drawn map will help you guide the story. The players may not have the complete map, but at least you will know where they are in the world!

Imagination & Humor

There are a lot of important tools you need to be a good Dungeon Master, but imagination and a sense of humor are critical. It is a game, afterall! You are responsible for weaving the tale for the players. Sure, they make the decisions that determine the direction at any given moment, but you are always orchestrating the overall direction. If the players make a decision that derails from the main plot, you have to decide whether and/or how to get them back on track. That takes imagination.

A sense of humor is no less important. Players will make decisions that are just down right funny. Dice rolls will be amazing resulting in incredible feats and they will be incredibly bad resulting in hilarious failures. With a good sense of humor you can set the tone for your table and that will help the players enjoy themselves, even when their heroic barbarian slips on a banana peel.

Growing & Thriving

This is just a basic set of guidelines to get you started on the path of becoming a great Dungeon Master. It’s not exhaustive (there are literal books about how to be a Dungeon Master), it’s just meant to get you started down the path.

As you grow and become more excited about the game, you might find yourself looking for a cool new set of dice or maybe a dice tower. Whenever that happens, take a look around for the best RPG accessories anywhere.

Let’s Roll!